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Between chords, puffs on his cigarette, and sips of his drink—all of which seem to be executed simultaneously—Red Garland offers his fellow musicians declarations of encouragement and appreciation. A strategic cymbal splash from Walter Winn, and Garland twists around to bathe the drummer in beatific smiles. A pungent quote from tenor saxophonist Marchel Ivery, and the pianist whoops, “All right, my man!” He sits, hands folded, chuckling approval during Charles Scott’s bass solos. Young trumpeter Chuck Willis receives appreciative murmurs. Garland is back at work and loving it.

The Recovery Room: an appropriate place for a comeback. The bandstand in the little club on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas is a sort of shrine to Charlie Parker, with paintings of Bird on the cinder block walls and a border of white doves on the ceiling curtain that marks the stand’s perimeter. The music is in the Parker tradition, and Garland is clearly delighted to be playing bebop again.

Garland was part of the most admired rhythm section in jazz as Miles Davis’ anchorman in the late fifties; he has been a stylistic influence on hundreds of pianists. Since his mother’s death in 1965, he has spent most of his time in Dallas. There were a few trips for club appearances in Los Angeles and New York, and there was a recording session for a German label. But to the international jazz constituency he acquired during and after his four years with Davis, Garland has been among the missing. There were rumors that he was dead, ill, retired, drying out, despondent, or working for the post office. Dallas music insiders knew he could occasionally be heard at the Rounders, Wellington’s, Arandas, and the Texas Magic Asylum. But in the spring of 1975 Garland dropped out altogether.

“Let’s just call it a vacation,” he says. “After the Texas Magic Asylum folded, I didn’t know whether to go to New York or go back out to the Rounders. But the Rounders was such a headache. The record royalties were coming in, so I did nothing. I watched television for eighteen months. Sitting around idle. There were nights I said, ‘Damn, I sure would like to go and jam someplace,’ and I thought about the Recovery Room, but I said, ‘Well, I’ll just take a little more time.'”

One of Garland’s most passionate fans, Jeanie Donnelly, operates the Recovery Room with her husband Bill, and she was determined to end Red’s vacation. A diminutive woman full of good-natured intensity and with a musician’s ear for the idiosyncrasies and surprises of jazz solos, Mrs. Donnelly knows not only what she likes but also why she likes it, and that endears her to jazz players.

“She should be a musician, she’s got such big ears,” Garland says. “One day in September Jeanie sent a friend by to see if I was doing anything. I wasn’t, of course. She asked how I’d like to play at the Recovery Room. I said when, and she said tomorrow night, and I’ve been here ever since. It was that easy.”

The room can’t hold both a grand piano and enough tables to pay the freight, so Garland operates a spinet, which in his honor is kept in tune—a departure from the jazz club norm. A former professional boxer who once took on Sugar Ray Robinson, Red smilingly punches out block chord accompaniments to Ivery’s expansive tenor saxophone solos. Those locked chords are a Garland hallmark. Melding the chords with extremely fast single-note lines and the irresistible pulse that underlies everything he plays, he created one of the most warmly compelling keyboard styles in jazz. Garland generates the hard-edged excitement developed by bop pianists like Bud Powell and George Wallington, yet retains the smooth, swinging, melodic flow native to so many jazzmen from the Southwest. The late critic Ralph J. Gleason said in a Down Beat review in 1958, “He has brought back some long-absent elements to jazz piano, made them acceptable to the ultra-modernists, and proved over again the sublime virtue of swing and a solid, deep groove.”

When Garland returned to the keyboard, he made a painful discovery. “After laying off for a year and a half, I was out of shape. For the first week I sat up there and played like this,” he says, holding his hands in playing position and grimacing. “All my fingertips were sore, and the nails were broken down in the quick. I soaked them in warm salt water, but it didn’t help. You can lose your chops, just like a trumpet man. But he didn’t know that; there had been no other layoffs since he first learned to play the piano.

Red was born William Garland in Dallas on May 13, 1923. His father, William, Sr., was an elevator operator at the First National Bank. “None of my family played,” Garland recalls. “My dad used to say, ‘William, we’re not musical. It must be something you were meant to do.'”

Red’s first instrument was the clarinet. He learned alto saxophone under Buster Smith, a great Texas saxophonist who was a profound influence on the young Charlie Parker. Smith was a stickler for reading music, and that ability served the eighteen-year-old Garland well when he was presented with an opportunity to learn piano. “It was 1941, and I was in the Army at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I used to go to the recreation room and listen to a pianist named John Lewis, not the famous John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I’d look over his shoulder and ask him to teach me how to play. ‘Can you read?’ he said. ‘I don’t want to have to take you from the ground up.’ I showed him I could read, and I used to meet him every day. We’d put the books up on the piano and he’d show me.”

Another Army pianist named Lee Barnes gave Garland further instruction, and by the time he left the service Red rarely found it necessary to play saxophone or clarinet. One of the artists whose influence guided Garland’s stylistic development is barely remembered today as a pianist except by other pianists. That was Nat Cole, whose touch, phrasing, and conception impressed Red. Other players he studied were the stride giants James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts, the elegant Teddy Wilson, the mercurial Bud Powell, and Art Tatum.

“Tatum, of course, was the master. He was Mr. Piano. The first time I heard a Tatum record—I think it was ‘Tiger Rag’—I thought it was at least three pianists.”

Less than five years after that first piano lesson, Garland joined Hot Lips Page, perhaps the least celebrated of the truly great trumpet players, but one of the heroes of jazz in the Southwest.

“I was working in Dallas at a place called the Log Cabin with Bill Blocker, a tenor player. He’s dead now. Lips came to Dallas to play a dance, and his pianist quit. Word spread around that Hot Lips Page was looking for a pianist. I was going to the dance anyway, and I went on up to the stand. Four of us tried out that night. I sat up there and read his book, and then I went on home. About five in the morning here comes a knock at the door—boom, boom, boom, boom—and my mother says, ‘What have you done, Little William, must be the police; you must have done something wrong.’ We opened the door and there were Hot Lips Page and Buster Smith. Lips said, ‘You’re the guy who sat in with me tonight? Well, I need you, man. Come on, throw somethin’ in a bag and let’s go.’ That was it. That was the beginning of life on the road. Lips was beautiful. He was a good strong Dixie- and swing-style player, he had knowledge of music, and was a wonderful blues singer. I really enjoyed the man.”

Garland was with Page until March 1946, when a tour ended in New York, and Red decided to take what jobs he could get there. Drummer Art Blakey happened to hear him in a small club and the next night returned with his boss, Billy Eckstine, known in the trade as B, proprietor of a startlingly iconoclastic big band that had left the swing era behind. At one time or another, the Eckstine band included nearly every pioneer of the new music called bebop—Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Sonny State, Miles Davis, Blakey—and Garland was asked to join.

“Blakey said to B, ‘Let’s get him. Let’s take him.’ B asked me to go, and I piled into the bus. I was only with them about six weeks, but did I hear some music on that band! Then after I left B, I started fooling around with Lockjaw Davis, the tenor player, just going from club to club, this group, that group, this gig, that gig.”

From 1947 to 1949, Red was part of the house rhythm section at the Blue Note, a bastion of modern jazz in Philadelphia. He worked there with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Charlie Ventura, and Benny Green, among others. Then he joined the seminal tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge in their combo.

“The name jobs started coming. Hawk would say, ‘Hey, get Red Garland. I used him last week, he’s something.’ So I went from Hawkins to Lester Young to Ben Webster, passed around among those great tenor men. The word got around, and I got more work with good players than I could handle.”

By the early fifties, Garland was a big enough name to get steady employment as the leader of his own trio. His reputation among other musicians was firmly established, And the man who would make Garland a part of the most celebrated and influential small band since Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five was showing interest. “In 1953 I was in Boston. Miles Davis came over to the club where I was working. He said he was going to form a group. He wanted me, Sonny Rollins on tenor, Max Roach on drums, Oscar Pettiford would be the bass player.” But the group didn’t materialize, and Garland continued to work with his trio and the eloquent tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Red recorded with Davis and drummer Philly Joe Jones in mid-1955, then returned to Young.

“In October of fifty-five, Miles called and said he was ready. He said he couldn’t get Max Roach because Max had just formed his own group with Clifford Brown. Could I recommend a drummer? I said, ‘Yeah, Philly Joe.’ Miles said to bring him. Rollins and Pettiford were leaders now too, and he asked if I knew a tenor player, and I said, ‘Yeah, man, I got a kid here in Philly. He’s bad. His name’s John Coltrane.’ He said to bring Coltrane. Miles sent to Detroit for a little bass player he knew of—Paul Chambers. I didn’t know him. The day of the opening, we all met at Anchor’s Inn in Baltimore about four o’clock. Miles ran us through four or five tunes, then we went back to the hotel and ate and fooled around, and we opened up at nine, and that’s how the group started.”

Garland’s account differs slightly from Philly Joe’s. (The reticent Davis offers no account of anything.) Jones recalls that he and Miles had been barnstorming around the East in 1955, playing clubs with pickup groups of local musicians, virtually none of them satisfactory, and Davis was eager to find the right combination. Red may have gathered Jones and Coltrane together for the trip to Baltimore, but Davis was certainly familiar with Jones’ work; they had played together sporadically since 1952. And he had at least heard of Coltrane, because ’Trane had worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and other established musicians. At any rate, they agree that the first afternoon’s perfunctory rehearsal was the final one for the new Miles Davis Quintet. Henceforth, everything was worked out on the stand, and the empathy of the group was uncanny. It is unlikely that any rhythm section has ever been so perfectly matched and so able to meet the needs and demands of soloists with styles as diverse as those of Davis and Coltrane.

Garland was Mr. Inside, the connecting tissue of the section, making it possible for the loud, eccentric, but always swinging Philly Joe and the powerful, chance-taking Chambers to go outside with the horn players. His piano was always reliably there, providing the sturdy foundation for Miles’ rhythmic and melodic departures and the rococo inventions of Coltrane, probably the most tirelessly searching improviser jazz has known. The few critics who looked for something to deprecate in Garland’s playing chose to call him old-fashioned. What they failed to understand was that with a more “modern” pianist the group might well have flown off in all directions. Davis understood that perfectly, just as he knew or sensed that this combination of five disparate musicians would coalesce into a superior band.

In the first weeks of his return to regular playing in Dallas, all of Garland’s skills were intact. If anything, he was performing with even more vigor. The lightning single-note lines were impeccable, sore fingertips or no, and the rhapsodic out-of-tempo introductions to ballads were as rich as ever. As for the legendary rhythmic qualities in Garland’s work, eloquent testimony was given one Saturday night by a huge man in a slick red leisure suit who had been sitting near the piano for some time, bobbing and weaving. Finally, he sprang to his feet and broke into a kind of shaggy bear dance in front of the tiny bandstand. Garland applauded.

The band with Garland on a recent weekend was excellent. Marchel Ivery, the saxophonist, was once described in Texas Monthly as “competent.” He is much more than that: a full-blooded, modern mainstream tenor man with abundant ideas and that peculiarly spacious Texas sound (see “Blowing in the Winds,” TM, December 1975). Drummer Walter Winn slashes and crashes engagingly in the Philly Joe Jones manner, matching and inspiring Garland’s swing. Winn is the painter of the Charlie Parker pictures in the club, as well as the sculptor of the eighteen-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King in the Dallas MLK Center. Charles Scott is an incisive and dependable bassist. Chuck Willis, who sat in on trumpet, showed genuine harmonic individuality on medium tempos and ballads and a fine liquid fluency on fast pieces. Willis is a graduate of the North Texas State lab band program and a musician to watch.

Outside the Recovery Room during an intermission, two women from Fort Worth chatted with Garland. “Did you know,” one of them asked, “that a Juilliard professor once said you were one of the top five jazz pianists?”

“Yeah, I never could understand that. Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner for originality, Earl Hines, OK. But me . . . that’s always been a puzzle.”

The lady wanted to know what he thought of his records.

“I don’t listen to me. That’s too egotistical. I listen to other artists. I think I have one of my albums, and my wife bought that. I can hear myself at work, but to sit and listen to me like I’m my own number one fan, I can not do that.”

Legions of listeners around the world can, however, and would like to, but most of his dozen or so albums as leader are out of circulation. At this writing, Don Schlitten of Xanadu Records is attempting to work out a Garland record date, the first in several years, and Garland is enthusiastic because he feels Schlitten is interested in capturing the real Red Garland. Others have tried to persuade him to follow the jazz-rock fusion path that has brought popular success to pianists like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, alumni of later editions of the Miles Davis group.

“Johnnie Taylor, the blues singer, called me up one day and said I ought to play some rock and roll. No. No way. The blues, yes—that’s my heart. And let me play some Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, good standards, improvise on those. But play rock and roll? No sir, that just isn’t music to me. I’d wash dishes first.”